Son House Father of Folk Blues

Through the Eye of a Needle: The Unlikely Success of Son House’s ‘Father of Folk Blues’

Son House is the most important Delta blues rediscovery of the 1960s, and his Father of Folk Blues LP is the best blues rediscovery studio album.

Father of Folk Blues
Son House

The story of Son House’s sole studio album is so implausible that it could easily pass for fiction.

By the middle of the 1960s, the so-called “blues revival” was in full swing, with white audiences “discovering” the music of Black blues artists. As part of this process, some artists who had stopped performing and recording long before, such as Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, were “rediscovered” and brought back onto stages and into studios. Their recording careers had stopped abruptly after the blues boom of the 1920s, as the Great Depression erased the market for blues records practically overnight. By the time recording resumed in earnest, following the musicians’ strike of 1942-1944, many more Blacks had moved North to big cities, and their tastes had shifted mainly away from country blues.  

Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, two essential Delta blues standard-bearers, passed away in the 1930s. Still, young white blues fans wondered about the whereabouts of another singer at the epicenter of the genre in its early years. Patton mentored this man, inspiring not just Johnson but also Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others. These fans knew of Eddie “Son” House, Jr. only through his few recordings from the past: four exceedingly rare Paramount 78s from 1930 and 18 Library of Congress field recordings from 1941 and 1942.

Three young, white blues fans – Phil Spiro, Dick Waterman, and Nick Perls – went looking for House in Memphis and Mississippi during the summer of 1964. It was hardly a safe endeavor to undertake at that time. When they were in Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan murdered two other young, Northern whites and their Black friend, civil rights activists working to register Black voters. On that day, Spiro, Waterman, and Perls first spoke to House, but only over the phone, since he was living neither in Mississippi nor Memphis but in Rochester, New York. Two days later, on 23 June 1964, they arrived in Rochester and met House for the first time face-to-face. 

House had moved to Rochester in 1942, not long after his final Library of Congress recording session. He worked as a railroad porter for a time, but by 1964, he was essentially unemployed and living on a meager pension. He hadn’t played much music since 1953 when he learned of the death of his best friend and musical partner, Willie Brown. Though House’s birthdate is disputed, he was at least 62 years old when the three young white men arrived in Rochester. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they discovered House couldn’t sing or play the way he had more than 20 years before, the last time he recorded, but that, fortunately, wasn’t the case.

At the same time, it would also be easy to assume House was overjoyed to return to recording and performing – to finally earn more money from his art and win more appreciation – but that appears to be a mistaken assumption as well. House was spiritually conflicted about playing the blues, and though he could still perform, he was physically and emotionally impacted by severe alcoholism. After retiring from music again in 1974, he told an interviewer that he found his resuscitated career unsatisfying. Whether it served House to come out of retirement is one question, but whether his return to music benefited blues fans is quite another. The answer to that second question is a resounding yes, mainly because of this album.

Though the “rediscovered” House was musically active for about a decade, his ability to perform was already constrained in 1964, and it deteriorated rapidly over time due to his alcoholism and his advancing age. Famously, in 1966 at the Newport Folk Festival, Howlin’ Wolf chided House, and a film crew captured his comments. Wolf said of House, “he done drunk up all of his” blues. Then, he shot this scathing criticism at House: “You had a chance with your life, but you ‘ain’t done nothing with it. You don’t love but one thing, and that’s whiskey.” Though many of his concert recordings were issued, House was able to make but one studio album. 

While other “rediscovered” talents were signed to independent labels, Father of Folk Blues was recorded and released in 1965 by a major label, Columbia, alongside albums by massive stars like Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Miles Davis, and Johnny Cash. John Hammond, who had signed Dylan and Aretha Franklin and would go on to sign Bruce Springsteen, produced this album and signed House to his Columbia contract.

Regarding Son House’s reputation, the elephant in the room is Robert Johnson, his more popular protege. Hammond signed House, but the artist he really wanted was Johnson, and he had sought Johnson out more than two decades earlier, shortly before Johnson’s death. Johnson’s recordings from 1936 and 1937 were initially re-released on Columbia in two batches (in 1961 and 1970) and again, famously, during another blues “revival” in 1990. Astoundingly, the 1990 Johnson set of two CDs or cassettes was certified Platinum, an unheard-of feat for a prewar country blues artist.

From a narrative perspective, House’s story has suffered compared to Johnson’s, thanks to the legend that Johnson acquired his guitar prowess thanks to a deal with the devil, and his live-fast-and-die-young trajectory, which likely appeals to rock audiences. Like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse, Johnson died at age 27, apparently poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he was seeing. Lyrically, much of his work focuses on a critical pursuit for many young people, sexual conquest, and his bragging and boasting call hip-hop to mind. There’s no denying Johnson’s songwriting skill, his guitar wizardry, or his influence on countless artists, from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones and beyond. 

Son House playing as D. K. Wilgus records music
Photo: Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson’s strengths were many, but it’s tough to compete with House’s lyrics and vocals, which carry tremendous passion, depth, and pathos. “I don’t like no foolish songs; I like ’em to mean something,” House told Sounds magazine in 1970. “Those songs have got to be about something.” House’s blues are as serious as a heart attack, and if there’s any artifice in his performances, it’s challenging to detect. These recordings convey what appear to be the actual experiences, thoughts, and feelings of a middle-aged artist who had lived a very challenging life. House faced one form of serious trouble after the next, including racism and poverty in the Jim Crow South, failed attempts to become a preacher, alcoholism, a tumultuous marriage, the commission of two murders, time incarcerated on Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, and the premature death of his best friend.

Sound quality is important when assessing Father of Folk Blues and comparing it to other country blues recordings. In April 1965, at Columbia’s studio in New York City, Son House pierced through the sonic fog of the pre-war era’s primitive recording technology with all the power of a nuclear blast. Though more than half a century has passed since then, House’s voice and slide guitar still leap out of speakers or headphones with such immediacy that he might as well be here right now. This album is a rare country blues LP to win widespread praise from audiophiles, and it has repeatedly been reissued not just on CD but also on vinyl. Johnson’s 1930s records will probably never sound as clear, warm, and present as House’s 1965 album, despite repeated remastering of Johnson’s work (most notably on 2011’s excellent Centennial Collection). Similarly, neither House’s studio and field recordings from the 1930s and 1940s nor his live recordings from the 1960s and 1970s can match this album’s sound quality.

Father of Folk Blues is evenly split between standout songs (five) and less memorable but worthwhile tracks (four). The lead-off track, “Death Letter Blues”, is House’s signature song, which he first recorded for Paramount in 1930 under the title “My Black Mama (Part II).” It delivers drama worthy of a telenovela or maybe the Bible. House’s woman has died, and he didn’t understand that he loved her until the cemetery staff “let her down” into her grave. Now, House is crying and “feeling sad and blue”. This woman was so important to him that he imagined 10,000 people attending her funeral. He says he won’t see her again until Judgment Day, and he’s left without a soul to “throw his arms around”.

The song gets darker when House sings that “love had a fault” because it made him do things he didn’t want to, hinting that he may have killed this woman himself. The alternate take, released in 1992, points even further in that direction. “If you don’t have me,” House sings, “I didn’t want you to have nobody else.” The fact that House’s slide riff sounds like those in too many other Delta blues songs to name is a sign of origination, not imitation. It’s a testament to his status as a founding father of the genre. Using a copper slide on his resonant, metal-bodied National Duolian guitar, House creates a massive sound for an acoustic instrument by enthusiastically attacking the strings. 

Like “Death Letter Blues”, “Preachin’ Blues” was first cut by House in 1930, and it’s the song that best expresses the deep conflict between his urge to preach the Gospel and his need to play the blues, which many have called “the Devil’s music”. Unlike Georgia Tom (later Thomas A. Dorsey) and many other one-time blues musicians who later turned to gospel, House reversed the usual pattern, starting in the church and then “converting” to the blues. In House’s 1930 version of this song, he sings about how “women and whiskey” wouldn’t let him pray.

Son House
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Though he repeatedly tried to align himself with the Baptist church, House here directs scathing criticism at the hypocrisy of religious people, himself included. He sings that he wants to be a Baptist preacher just so he “won’t have to work”. It’s an acknowledgment of his less-than-spiritual motives. Still, at the same time, it’s a recognition of the limited career options for Black men in the prewar rural South, where preaching and singing were two of the few occupations that didn’t involve hard agricultural labor. Other hypocrites in the congregation House sings about include a Deacon who decides to “go back to barrelhousin’ again” and a sister who “jumped up” to “shout” how glad she is for “corn liquor.” Perhaps least religious of all is House’s lecherous wish to have a “heaven” of his own, where he would give “all” his women “a long, long, happy home”. This performance is a call-and-response duet between House’s voice and his guitar. While he sings, he repeatedly plays a haunting bent note, then answers his vocals with a melodic slide riff (and variations on it).

“John the Revelator” features House clapping along to his vocals sans guitar. John of Patmos is generally thought to be the John in question, as he was the reputed author of the Book of Revelation, the Bible’s final book (and its most apocalyptic text). Considered a gospel blues classic, “John the Revelator” was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1930 (coincidentally, the year House made his Paramount sides). House changes the lyrics in Johnson’s verses, pointing to three Biblical stories (none from the Book of Revelation). In the episodes House describes, or those adjacent to them in the biblical narrative, humans shamefully go astray: Adam realizes his nakedness after falling from grace in the Garden of Eden, Jesus’ disciples fail to stay awake to pray with him before his arrest, and those disciples stumble again in Galilee when they doubt the resurrection. As House sings them, it sounds like these stories deeply resonated with him, and it’s easy to imagine him relating to the spiritual shortcomings of these biblical figures.

Like “John the Revelator,” “Grinnin’ in Your Face” has no guitar part, and it’s perhaps the most powerful piece on the album. Running barely two minutes, it’s emotionally explosive, expressing House’s visceral hurt at being betrayed. It’s possible to write his words off as alcoholic paranoia, but his fervent plea strikes a nerve because betrayal is something everyone experiences at some point. House complains that “a true friend is hard to find.” He says he can’t even trust his mother or siblings, who smiled in his face but maligned him behind his back. “Just as soon as your back is turned, they’ll be tryin’ to crush you down,” House sings, with pain and bitterness audibly dripping from every word.

“Empire State Express” is one of two songs on the album to feature a second musician, a white guitarist and harmonica player named Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. A friend of the trio who located House in Rochester, Wilson would go on to co-found the blues band Canned Heat (named after a song by early Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson) and achieve considerable commercial success before overdosing in 1970 (like Robert Johnson and so many other musicians, he died when he was 27). Wilson played with House and Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and other Delta blues artists. Canned Heat recorded a hit double album with John Lee Hooker (the excellent Hooker’ n Heat) shortly before Wilson’s death. Wilson played guitar on this track and helped House remember how to play his old songs.

“Empire State Express” is a new piece, based presumably on House’s experience working as a railroad porter. The Empire State Express was a train running from New York City to Buffalo, later extended to Cleveland, and eventually to Detroit (where House moved after living in Rochester and where he died in 1988). The first half of the song’s lyrics are lifted from the prewar song “Travelin’ Blues” by Blind Willie McTell. House asks the depot agent if he can “ride the blinds” (i.e., ride the train for free), and the agent says no, he can’t allow that because he doesn’t own the train. The song’s second part vividly depicts the train in motion, with the “cruel” engineer blowing the whistle and the “mean ole” fireman ringing the bell. The train is blowing smoke at House as it leaves without him, taking his woman away as she’s “waving back farewell.”

The song leads off with a wicked, descending guitar riff that would fit nicely on a thrash metal album. Throughout, Wilson’s guitar harmoniously follows House’s, adding accents. Still, the real magic in their two-guitar attack happens in the first three bars of the second and each subsequent verse, as House repeats the lead riff and Wilson plays a frantic, undulating complement to it. It’s like the sound of a train barreling down a track, one that would have been very familiar to House.

Though not as impactful as the five standout songs, the four remaining tracks on the album have their charms. “Pearline” showcases House’s underrated, potent guitar playing. “Louise McGhee” is a song about House and a woman to whom he wasn’t married, a much younger woman he met in Rochester in the 1950s. Despite his love for her, he’s in despair, and though he has “done everything” to try to get along with her, it hasn’t worked. So he’s “going away” for “a great long time” and “never coming back” until she changes her mind about him.

This track features artful interplay between House’s vocal melodies and guitar lines, with his guitar sometimes doubling his voice and, at other times, answering it. His voice takes a surprising falsetto turn, and his lilting, stop-and-start timing is mesmerizing. In “Sundown,” another song about House’s romantic life, his “little girl” has broken his heart, and “best friends” have had to part. For House, who’s filled with self-pity and a desire for revenge, it’s all her fault, and she’ll pay (“her little trouble is coming home someday”). “Levee Camp Moan” concludes the album, clocks in at more than nine minutes, and features Wilson on harmonica. His sympathetic accompaniment makes it easy to understand why John Lee Hooker called Wilson the best blues harpist he had ever heard.

Father of Folk Blues has impacted fans and influenced artists for nearly six decades. In 1974, the Pointer Sisters released a ferocious funk-blues cover of “Grinnin’ in Your Face” on their second album, That’s a Plenty. A few decades later, Cassandra Wilson recorded an inspired jazz version of “Death Letter” on her Grammy-winning 1995 LP, New Moon Daughter. In this century, House’s music has profoundly impacted just Dan Auerbach and the Black Keys as well as Jack White and the White Stripes. “Some of the first blues music I heard was Son House,” Auerbach has said. “I was raised on his Columbia LP, Father of Folk Blues. My dad had that album and would play it in the house when I was a kid, so I know all those songs by heart.”

Jack White talking about Son House in It Might Get Loud

The White Stripes covered three songs from this album, “Death Letter”, “John the Revelator” (in their song “Cannon”), and “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, which White has called his all-time favorite song. “By the time I was about 18, somebody had played me Son House,” White commented in the film It Might Get Loud. “That was it for me. This spoke to me in a thousand different ways. I didn’t know that you could do that.” White described “Grinnin’ in Your Face” as “one many against the world in one song.” To him, “it meant everything. Everything about rock and roll, everything about expression and creativity and art.” 

Along with the idiosyncratic but influential Skip James, Son House stands as the most critical Delta blues “rediscovery” of the 1960s, and Father of Folk Blues is the crown jewel of that era’s studio albums. The only Son House recording that comes close to the quality of this album is the first one recorded after House’s “rediscovery” in 1964, from a concert late that year. In partnership with Dick Waterman — who became House’s manager — Auerbach remastered this live recording and released it on his Easy Eye Sound label in March 2022 as Forever on My Mind. It’s an admirable effort and a valuable contribution to House’s discography, but Father of Folk Blues remains House’s best work. 

Note: if you’re looking for this album on streaming services, seek Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions, which includes this nine-track album plus five alternate takes and seven outtakes.